Anchoring the northern entrance to Rome's centro storico, or historic center, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, while not one of the city's larger churches, is especially treasured for its legacy as a model of Renaissance architecture and the artistic masterpieces contained within, including works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Pinturicchio, and Annibale Carracci.
History of Santa Maria del Popolo
While many churches in Rome were built on the remains of earlier pagan temples, the location of Santa Maria del Popolo was chosen for its proximity to a tree. According to church history, the basilica stands at the spot where despotic Emperor Nero was buried. A tree grew from his bones and was supposedly possessed by demons or similarly evil creatures, who attacked pilgrims entering Rome from the nearby Porta Flaminia, which still stand next to the church. In the early 11th century, Pope Paschal II conducted an exorcism of the tree, and the tree was removed. A stone set in its place allegedly became part of the altar of the church that would later become Santa Maria del Popolo.
Fast forward several centuries to the late 1400s, when Rome was ripe for rebuilding following the so-called "dark ages" of the Medieval era. Pope Sixtus IV defined his 13-year-long papacy with a series of ambitious building projects that would mark the beginning of the Renaissance in Rome. The medieval church was completely demolished, and the church that replaced it, with its restrained, geometric facade, is still seen as a prototype for early Renaissance architecture.
What to See in the Basilica
Although Sixtus IV did not live long enough to see the renovation completed, he was initially responsible for bringing in the most renowned artists and architects of the period to work on its interiors. The octagonal dome is one of the most architecturally sophisticated features constructed during the Renaissance. The choir was designed by Renaissance master architect Donato Bramante and once contained paintings by Raphael. Among the many elaborate side chapels of Santa Maria del Popolo, most of which served as resting places for Papal families, the best known is the Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael. The dome of the chapel is the only surviving example of Raphael's work in mosaic.
A Baroque-era renovation was executed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who added white stucco embellishments. The basilica chapels contain two of Caravaggio’s most important paintings, the Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus. The chapels are kept dimly lit to protect the paintings—you need a euro coin to illuminate them for a few minutes.
Santa Maria del Popolo Location
The basilica is located on the northern end of Piazza del Popolo, to the right of the Porta del Popolo, the ancient city gate. Pincio Hill and the Villa Borghese gardens sit above the basilica. The Flaminio Metro stop is a one-minute walk, and the Spagna stop at Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) is about a 10-minute walk.
Piazza del Popolo is one of the largest plazas in Europe and is great for people-watching or taking a break near one of its fountains. The area south of the piazza is known for its high-end designer shopping and luxury hotels. The Spanish Steps, the Ara Pacis Museum, and the museums of the Villa Borghese are all close by, as are a range of budget to expensive dining options. Just across the river from the piazza is the Prati neighborhood, a white-collar area near Vatican City. It's a good area for dining and shopping without breaking the bank, and also an excellent place to stay for those who want to avoid some of the noise and pedestrian traffic of central Rome.
How to Visit Santa Maria del Popolo
The basilica is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. Visits are not allowed during mass. To get the best view of the interiors and paintings, we recommend visiting right at the opening time or just before closing. Admission is free.